I can solve Rubik’s Cubes. I can win games of Solitaire. I can bowl strikes and spares consistently through a game of Wii bowling.
I know it sounds silly, but that’s the way I am. I figure out a process that works and use it to death.
Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” He had a process too. But his process was for a different result. The result he wanted was the movement of large objects. His process was a fulcrum and lever. Once he had that down, he could achieve his result whenever he wished.
What’s the desired result of Rubik’s Cubes? Solitaire? Wii bowling? Simple. They’re all games. You play to have fun. Winning might seem synonymous with fun in this case, but fun is the true goal.
So I have a question for myself. Does knowing the process to winning each of these things help me achieve my goal?
Sure it does. If winning is synonymous with fun, I can have fun with each of these games simply by winning. But wait. I said that winning might seem synonymous. Is it really?
Well, I suppose you have to figure that out separately for each task. Rubik’s Cubes, when you don’t know how to solve them, are extremely frustrating. I have never known myself to have fun twisting a Rubik’s Cube when I don’t know where I’m going with it. But Solitaire and most other games are different. The goal of all of them is to win, yes, but the fun comes from the process of winning, not from the actual moment of winning. It’s the feeling that you’ve actually worked hard to win, instead of simply rattling off a formula. In that case, the formula isn’t worth it. Having a formula makes achieving the goal impossible.
But for someone like Archimedes, who has more important things in mind than winning card games against himself, is the formula a good thing? Well, let me counter that with another question: is his goal something that can only be achieved in the process? No. It doesn’t matter how he moves his object, but as long as he does, he’s achieved his goal.
Let’s get down to the real question, then. Are formulas helpful for writing?
Well, that depends on your goal, now doesn’t it? If your goal is to write the Great American Novel, then yes, yes they are. Formulas will help you achieve that goal with as little resistance possible. However, if your goal is to have the most fun ever with this novel, whether it gets published or not… I’d say skip the formula. Unless, that is, you get a rush from completing checklists.
When you’re focused on the end result instead of the process, you run the risk of ending up like James Patterson. Now, I haven’t read many of his books, but I’ve heard that all of them have the same plot, the same sorts of characters– they’re predictable to the extreme. Patterson is more concerned about creating a bestseller than having fun while doing it.
When you’re focused on the process, however, you tend to forget the best way to craft a story, just throwing everything onto the page as it occurs to you. It’s a lot of fun. When you reach the end, however, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking.
I’m a discovery writer– I tend to love the process more than the end result. When I finished Fathoming Egression, I wrote this:
I had a lot of fun with this draft, I must say. This really revitalized my love of letting the story uncover itself. So many things just popped into place like puzzle pieces that I will never plot a book again.
However, in the same post, I said this:
You know that feeling you get when you put the last piece of a puzzle into place, look at the whole thing, then say “Oops”? That’s something like what I’m feeling now. Everything fell into place so perfectly, and now that I’m looking at it I’m wondering if I should be allowed to ever again touch a pencil.
Obviously, I was in that delirious state of having finished my second novel, but there’s some truth in what I’m saying. I loved the process of writing the story, but I also wished I could have planned it better. I’m not trying to say that the only way to plan it is to use a formula. Actually, that might be what I’m trying to say. If you think about it, an outline is nothing but a big formula.
That’s all well and good, but I haven’t answered the question. How can I possibly have fun writing a story and be satisfied with the end result? Only through the seemingly unholy alliance of formula and spontaneity.
Formulas are not bad if you’re looking for a good end result. Spontaneity is not bad if you’re looking for fun along the way. However, too much of either, and you quickly get off track. So if you’re a discovery writer trying to incorporate formulas into your writing without making it boring, be careful. If you’re a plotter trying to be spontaneous without going off track, be careful. Formulas and spontaneity are neither bad nor good, but too much of either is definitely bad. I suggest caution.